Stroke after stroke, his arms pierced the water, gliding his body steadily forward to the pool’s edge. When he reached it, he flipped around and swam back to the other end. Jeff Corrigan, 61, wasn’t competing against other swimmers in a race. In fact, he was virtually alone in the pool at the Armed Services YMCA Wellness Center in Harker Heights early Sunday morning. But he did have an opponent. Corrigan was swimming to beat cancer. “I remember when Fransheska asked me if she could put her head on the desk, because she had a headache, and I said sure,” Corrigan recalled. Fransheska “Franny” Reyes was a student in his sixth-grade history class at Smith Middle School in 2000 when signs first appeared that something was wrong. A year later, her vision started to fail and tests revealed cancerous tumors were wrapped around her ocular nerves, requiring emergency surgery. Reyes remained in Scott & White Hospital in Temple for 63 days with doctors telling her parents, Hector and Sandra Reyes, to plan her funeral. But with her indomitable spirit and determination, Fransheska Reyes survived, although she was in agonizing pain. “I visited her every day, and heard her scream, but she never complained,” he said. After her recovery, Reyes was legally blind but returned to school, learned Braille, and eventually attended Harker Heights High School. Yet, sadly, she died Sept. 11, 2004, at the age of 15.
Corrigan gently patted his chest when he remembered Fransheska’s beautiful heart and extraordinary kindness and love. “I can’t ever forget her,” he said. “The world was a better place with people like Fransheska in it.” It is in Reyes’ memory that Corrigan participated in the San Francisco Bay Swim, a distance of 1.5 miles, to raise money for cancer research, especially for children.
It was only two years ago when Corrigan decided to get in shape again after realizing he weighed 255 pounds. “I think too many people get to this age and let go of their health, but I still wanted to run,” Corrigan said. By calling on his previous experience as a runner when he was younger, Corrigan created his own fitness program to train for triathlons. He prefers a sprint triathlon, where the distances are shorter in each event. “I do a half-mile swim, 15 mile bike ride and 5k run,” Corrigan said. In July 2015, he did the Life Time Tri Minneapolis and has competed in nine triathlons since April 2016, including in New York City. He finished first in his age group in an Austin triathlon. And thanks to all the triathlons, plus numerous 5k and 10k runs, he has lost 50 pounds.
The Reyes family is very supportive and grateful for all of Corrigan’s efforts to honor Fransheska’s memory. “Jeff will always be a very special person for our family. And we are touched that our daughter continues to inspire those she impacted with her smile,” Sandra Reyes said. This year, Corrigan returned to the classroom, now at Audie Murphy Middle School, to begin his 29th year of teaching world and Texas history. When he’s not in the classroom, he is most likely training in the area for his next triathlon. But he never forgets why, and for whom, he is doing it. “If you can’t do something in life to make a difference, then what’s the point,” Corrigan said. “You can’t just exist, to exist.”